(SPOILERS) Much as I'm loathe to say it – especially since the results would have been torturously overloaded with pop culture references – the Joss Whedon version of Wandavision would surely have been superior to the one we got (although, it might not have featured Emma Caulfield Ford, since she stood with Charisma Carpenter). I watched the miniseries in several sittings after the run had completed, so I was spared most of the frustration at potential fan service left unfulfilled – anyone would think it was Lost… or Q Drops – but even without such dashed anticipation, it was very evident the show could have been sharper, tighter, and with more emphasis on the twists it did have. And, in some cases, better casting wouldn’t have gone amiss either.
Well, one case really. Kathryn Hahn is fine as a really annoying neighbour (Agnes) – it may just be me, but Hahn’s actual persona is really annoying, so she’s a perfect fit in that sense – but absolutely dreadful as a villain (Agatha Harkness). There’s zero weight, substance or threat once Agatha’s reveal takes place. She’s just some overrated comedienne hamming it up. Why not just cast Kathy Griffin and have done? When 8: Previously On flashes back to Salem 1693, it further emphasises how this could easily be a Whedon show, but Whedon knew how to structure his revelations and muster maximum impact from them. Everything about Agatha’s villainy underwhelms, making her a rather cheap and unworthy opponent for Wanda.
The same is true of Director Hayward (Josh Stamberg). Stamberg’s performance is fine, but once it’s revealed he’s a nefarious plotter, his motivation is generic (who will be undone by a comedy sidekick character). The show’s twists and reveals in general are far from the jaw-dropping kind you’d get with Buffy or Lost. The perspective switch of 4: We Interrupt This Program is less than revelatory, and the exposition regarding Wanda’s manipulation by both Hayward and by Agnes comes as a bit of a cop out; Wanda may take the blame for possessing all those poor people, but hey, she isn’t completely responsible (added to which, there’s the weird line at the end when Monica tells her they – the tortured townsfolk - will never know what she sacrificed for them. Er, come again?)
Evan Peters makes the most of an initially sly return as Wanda’s brother Pietro, resembling his Fox/X-Men version but also bro-uncle cool with it. He’s a lot of fun, and a shot in the arm at a necessary juncture, but it’s it easy to see why viewers convinced this was more than it turned out to be felt short-changed. Including the alt-Pietro by Marvel was absolutely fan baiting, which means revealing him to be “just” Ralph Bohner was rather childish, a knowing and “superior” snub to inevitable expectations of a multiverse reveal. But I did like the “Kick ass” comment just after the discussion of why Pietro looks different (Aaron Taylor Johnson, of course, played Kick-Ass).
As these things go, the “chaos magic” and “Scarlet Witch” climactic “reveal” of Previously On also came across as a damp squib. So what? There’s an element of the demi-urgic false creator to Wanda’s coerced kingdom in Westview, but this kind of magical despot has been done, and with much more economy, in a multitude of science fiction and fantasy books, comics, TV series and movies. More successful is White Vision, even if the Superman III-style clash of doubles was more conceptually than visually resonant. Perhaps because Vision is very much the supporting cast member rather than co-lead.
In a sense this is fair, as Wanda is the instigator, if you like, of the proceedings. Added to which, Elizabeth Olsen is superb throughout, completely masterful in her adoption of sitcom personas and the general mannered but effortless style that comes with them. There are issues with the first three episodes in that, in common with the era of streaming TV, there’s no standing-on-you-own-two-fee-in-your-own-right = ratings = avoidance-of-cancellation onus. Which means there’s no desire to cut to the chase (again, sorry to hearken back to him, but I don’t believe Whedon would have spent all that time submerged in 50s/60s/70s sitcom tropes; he’d have revelled in them, sure, but he’d also have known how to balance that nostalgia element with intrigue and requirement to push the story forward. In the end, the first three episodes serve to emphasise how vanilla the overall plot is. Which doesn’t mean fans were wrong for expecting something more. Far from it. It’s really down to Jac Schaeffer (Captain Marvel) being too enamoured with the stylistic rabbit hole over the storytelling one.
Norm: You’re like a walking computer.
Vision: I certainly am not. I’m a regular carbon-based employee made entirely of organic matter, much like yourself
Those first three (Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience, Don’t Touch That Dial, Now in Color) have sprinklings of actual laughs throughout, but they’re more concerned with recreation than being consistently chucklesome. Bettany probably comes off best in terms of straight robot man responses to situations (“I too have some top-secret gossip – Norm here’s a communist”). He’s also genuinely funny as drunk Vision when a piece of chewing gum has clogged his inner workings (there’s more than a touch of Rik Mayall to the performance here).
Darcy: Part of me secretly wanted a guest spot on the show, but that seriously sucked.
The SWORD side of operations from We Interrupt This Program onwards also feels much less essential than it might have been. Randall Park (Jimmy Woo) and particularly Kat Dennings Darcy Lewis) are welcome presences, but they’re second fiddle to heroine Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris). I couldn’t for the life of me tell you anything about Monica – other than her mum being just about memorable in Captain Marvel – or what here superpowers were (I’m sure more of that in the exciting and much anticipated – ahem – Captain Marvel 2). It would have been better to make do with just Darcy and Jimmy. I’d much rather see Darcy and Vision’s oddball pairing in a circus truck (7: Breaking the Fourth Wall) than Monica recurrently pleading emotively with Wanda, material that is strictly functional.
Vision: I am Vision. I do want to help. But what’s an Avenger?
Because WandaVision is so much of a muchness, always quite watchable but never remotely essential, it takes a scene doing something different to remind you of the potential. Those with Vision were my favourites in Age of Ultron, and the character’s potential for relatable philosophical inquiry has been consistently undervalued in the quip-smart subsequent movies. And continues to be so here, where he’s relegated to an automated cadaver for much of the time. Vision’s growing awareness of the limits of his world is engaging but halting (I liked the scenes where we see activity has slowed to nothing on the edges of Westview, but they aren’t as sinister or disturbing as they might have been under Matt Shamkan’s direction).
Indeed, it takes the flashback scene with Wanda in the Avengers compound, following Pietra’s death, to be reminded of the possibilities inherent in this character’s insightfulness. And again, the character’s facility for compassionate reason, seen when he speaks to Ultron at the end of the first Avengers sequel, is revisited when he persuades his “real” self to stop fighting him and consider another course. Post-Age of Ultron, the Vision-Wanda relationship has taken up most of synthezoid’s time (not least in promoting the transhumanist agenda: humans – or mutants! – breeding together! Total anarchy!) It’s notable in this regard that John Byrne’s reasoning for introducing White Vision was an objection to such humanising; Byrne felt his essential robotoid AI-ness should be emphasised, amid other retconning of the Wanda story.
The long and short of WandaVision is that it’s another instance of having to work around two exceptionally powerful characters and not really pulling it off. It would appear there are plans for both going forward; certainly, Wanda’s due to appear in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. One wonders how long Bettany (knocking on fifty’s door) will continue as the now-bleached-out synthezoid*. Whoever replaces him with have some serious red-white skin to fill. I avoided spoilers for the most part prior to watching the show, but speculation that it would offer little more than the trailers turned out to be largely accurate. In terms of the extended storyline possibilities of an event series, Wandavision largely failed to fulfil them. In that sense, while superior on most levels, it bears a distinct resemblance to those now expired Netflix shows.
*I see there are rumours that Vision is to become transgender, whatever that means for a synthezoid. You have to laugh at Marvel's transformationally woke acumen. The alternate is too tragic to contemplate.